Interview: Valerie Weiss takes us behind the scenes of directing Netflix's "Outer Banks"

Photo: Valerie Weiss with Charles Esten (who plays Ward Cameron) by Curtis Baker, Outer Banks Ep. 8: The Runway

Valerie Weiss is an accomplished director and founder of PhD Productions. She has directed films such as A Light Beneath Their Feet and The Archer, along with television episodes such as ABC’s Scandal and NBC's Chicago Med, exploring various genres. Recently, she directed episodes 7 and 8 of Outer Banks, an action/drama show which reached number one on Netflix in the U.S. just after premiering on April 15, 2020. Created and produced by Jonas Pate, Josh Pate, and Shannon Burke, the show’s narrative follows John B (Chase Stokes) and his friends Kiara (Madison Bailey), Pope (Jonathan Daviss), JJ (Rudy Pankow), and Sarah (Madelyn Cline), on an ambitious treasure hunt, aiming to solve the mystery surrounding his father’s disappearance. With its beautiful cinematography and suspenseful cliffhangers, the show has quickly gained a loyal fanbase, leaving viewers eager for a Season 2 renewal. I had the opportunity to interview Valerie Weiss about her phenomenal work and experience directing Outer Banks, which has become my new favorite show!

Interview by Yising Kao, Photos provided by Valerie Weiss

Congrats on directing episodes 7 and 8 of Outer Banks, which hit number one on Netflix! Can you tell us about how you got involved with the show? Did you ever think it was going to reach this level of popularity with a huge fanbase?

A little over a year ago, I got a call from my manager that Jonas Pate, the Co-creator and Co-EP of OUTER BANKS, was considering me for 2 episodes of his new show. Jonas had learned about me from a producer that I worked with and then on our call we learned about our mutual Princeton background. I didn't know Jonas at Princeton, but I had been hearing about him and his twin brother Josh since I moved to Hollywood. I loved the pilot script and was thrilled when he offered me episodes 7 and 8 to direct. They were so action-packed and had such big emotional turns for all the characters. I had a strong hunch when I got to set that we had a big hit on our hands. The cast was so talented and open. I knew that audiences would empathize with them and our intimate shooting style which I'll talk more about in a second, would make you feel like you were there with these kids, friends with them.

You’ve said in an interview that you love stories that evoke a strong emotional experience. What elements of Outer Banks’ story drove you to it?

Jonas had told me in my interview that he wanted the show to have the authenticity of FRIDAY NIGHT LIGHTS, which hooked me instantly. My favorite thing to do is what Robert Zemeckis calls combining Spectacle with Truth. OUTER BANKS has larger than life aspects of the treasure hunt, huge action set pieces with boats and planes, a sweeping love affair, and a heroic escape through a hurricane, but those elements are balanced with grounded performances, and a naturalistic, almost documentary-like shooting style. Those grounded elements make you feel like you are really going through this impossible adventure with the characters. It's a metaphor for adolescence. While few of us will ever go deep-sea diving to look for gold, most of us will experience the tortuous ups and downs of first love, differentiating from our parents, and taking big risks to follow our hearts over our heads. Those are the emotional places and memories from which I was directing my episodes.

Photo: Valerie Weiss with Chase Stokes (John B) and Madelyn Cline (Sarah Cameron) by Curtis Baker, Outer Banks Ep. 8: The Runway

In episode 7, “Dead Calm,” there’s an emotional scene where JJ shows Kiara and Pope his new hot tub he recklessly bought, and they see his revealed bruises caused by his father’s abuse. I love how this scene powerfully expresses the characters’ friendship and JJ’s pain. What was your creative process like when directing this scene and then watching the final cut?

The hot tub scene was a highlight for me. Luckily, I got to direct the fight with JJ and his dad before directing the hot tub scene. I had the idea in prep that I wouldn't reveal the bruises until later in the scene. In this way, his friends could stay mad at him for being irresponsible, but once JJ stood up and they saw the bruises, their anger would slip away. They would realize how much JJ covers his pain and how selfish they were being for not seeing that. Knowing I would do this reveal, I designed the fight sequence so that most of the dad's punches would be to JJ's ribs (below the water line). Because Rudy and I had already shot the fight scene, we had a wonderful emotional shorthand and a lot of trust to go deep in this scene. Rudy Pankow is a phenomenal actor. He's playful but also extremely emotionally available. Madison Bailey and Jonathan Daviss are the same way. You can't help but melt when you see the concern in Kiara's and Pope's eyes when JJ breaks down. I also had the idea in prep that Kiara should climb into the hot tub with JJ to hug him, so we planned with wardrobe and sound for her to be able to do that with fast resets.

What was one of the biggest challenges of directing Outer Banks and how did you overcome it?

The biggest challenge directing OUTER BANKS had to do with schedule. We had a very ambitious shoot, 90% on location, in hot, muggy weather. We were always on the move and since we wanted to shoot so much at magic hour to capture the signature golden light, we had to schedule everything just right. Add to that, lightning storms that would sometime cause delays up to 4 hours, but somehow we managed to get it all. We had a great first AD, Susan Walter, who scheduled us really well and kept us moving. We also rarely cut the camera. Jonas and I both like to keep rolling between takes to keep the actors in character. We would do 9 or 10 minutes takes regularly and that helped us make our days.

What was your favorite part about directing Outer Banks?

I can't even tell you my favorite part because I loved every minute of it. Jonas, Josh and Shannon (the Co-EPs) were some of the best collaborators I've ever worked with. They were supportive, communicative, and passionate. Jonas would tell me, if something in the script isn't working, change the location or play with the dialogue. They weren't precious about anything, but they did have a strong clear vision for what the show is. My other favorite part was the cast. They were so kind and just so into it. They would come to set with a million ideas and an easy vibe. In the heist scene, the kids had to lay face down in the mud while Barry robbed them. The girls are in halter tops and Emmie Holmes, our fabulous costume designer and I asked them if they were sure they were ok exposing their mid-sections to the muck and insects. They were totally fine with it and never complained once.

Photo: Valerie Weiss with Charles Esten and Chase Stokes

You’ve graduated from Harvard with a Ph.D in Biophysics and also attended the American Film Institute’s Directing Workshop for Women. How have your diverse experiences inspired you to found your own production company, PhD Productions?

I was attracted to science and directing for the same reasons - a deep curiosity for how our world works and the chance to share my perspective about it. I left science after getting my Ph.D. because I wanted a larger platform to reach people. I also think that if you can package big ideas in entertainment, they will be absorbed more easily by society. I've made movies about mental illness (A LIGHT BENEATH THEIR FEET), the corrupt for-profit prison system (THE ARCHER) and I always highlight the important messages and themes in the television episodes I direct. It's a bit like doing a Ph.D. - you start with a hypothesis (perspective), you design an experiment to test it (the narrative), observe the data (character's reactions to their circumstances) and analyze the data (resolution and denouement). Having spent so much of my life doing scientific research holds me accountable to the cause and effect of plot as well as the authenticity of the actors' performances. My impression is that audiences intuit the reliable storyteller's perspective and invest deeply in the ride because of it. For me, logic and creativity go hand-in-hand in making art that is impactful and lasting.

Your work is really amazing and inspiring! Since you’ve directed both films and television episodes, what are some of the differences between working with them? Do you prefer directing one over the other?

I love directing both film and television and I am grateful that I get to do both. In television, there is often a visual world and language that's already been created before you arrive. In film, you are creating this world from scratch and the possibilities are endless for how to tell your story. I love television because you have a condensed period of time (usually 15 days total for prep and shooting for a one-hour drama) and you can't overthink anything. You need to make quick decisions and trust your gut. It's an excellent exercise and makes you a better film director.

Do you have any advice for young women aspiring to become directors?

My advice would be the same for young women and young men. This industry is hard to crack no matter who you are. There is no denying that it has historically been much harder for some groups than others, but that is not something you can control. What you can control is honing your craft, making work that reflects your sensibility, and aligning yourself with like-minded artists. If you continue to hold yourself to the highest creative standards, keep putting one foot in front of the other and never stop, odds are you'll get where you want to be.

Photo: Valerie Weiss with Charles Esten and Madelyn Cline

Make sure to stay updated with Valerie Weiss and her work, and check out Outer Banks on Netflix!

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